By on June 21, 2009

Did you ever hold a 70s vintage Volkswagen car catalog in your hands? You know, the ones without a picture of a car on the cover? Just “The Rabbit,” “Der Käfer,” “Le Golf?” One distinct color per model, that’s it? Yes, those were the handiwork of yours truly.

My cartalogs were even exhibited at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. In a “mass production” exhibit. A shockwave assaulted my artistic pride. After it had abated, I had to concede that the museum was right: We cranked the catalogs out in assembly line fashion.

At the time, I had advanced from lowly copywriter to the lofty title of Creative Director of our advertising agency in Düsseldorf, Germany. I was in charge of a horde of 20 creative types. Rumor had it that when it came to hiring, my decision making was guided by physical factors alone: Copywriters had to be big bruisers, engage in body building, martial arts, and motocross biking. Art Directors had to be thin, sicklish, and at least had to look effeminate.

The most important part in the creation of a new catalog was the decision where to shoot the pictures. The location discussion took longer and was taken more seriously than producing the catalog. Except for brand new models. Those had to be photographed in utter secrecy, which led to the great Ehra-Lessien duck kill, chronicled in an earlier chapter of the Autobiography of BS.

Facelifts or new variants could be photographed in broad daylight. Daylight played the most important role in the discussions of where to shoot the cars. Everybody was seriously convinced that we needed that special light, only available in certain locations. The weather should be bright and sunny, otherwise the photography would get interrupted and delayed by rain. Sun was very important. It just so happened that the best suited locations were always close to a beach, in an area with touristic appeal, served by fancy hotels. Photographers, Art Directors, and the many suits of VW who had to accompany the photo shoot for supervisory, security, and whatever other reasons, all were in total agreement when it came to the requirements of a photo location.

The day’s work of a photo shoot was usually very short: Cars were shot at sunrise and at sunset. Again, “because of the light.” In between, there was time to hit the beaches, explore bars, and to familiarize oneself with the models that had been carefully cast before.

I once had suggested photographing the cars north of the Polar Circle, in Finland, during midsummer. While the sun would set at midnight, we would shoot some pictures. Then we would turn the car around and wait for the sunrise which would occur minutes later. 23 hours of uninterrupted free time! That suggestion never received traction. No beaches or fancy hotels beyond the Polar Circle.

I believe it was the launch of the Scirocco GTI, 1976. At the time, I was living in Düsseldorf with my American girlfriend, a short five feet tall, her mother was a Manhattan slumlord who lived in a co-op at 64th and 2nd. If you are my age and you lived in NYC at the time, you probably know who I’m talking about. She was a bit promiscuous. Now you remember her. Yeah, the good old times.

The Scirocco GTI was the perfect car to photograph in the wild. The difference was the 110 hp engine underhood. Outside, not much that couldn’t be added with careful retouching.

Again, the big location discussion ensued.

Nice? Sardinia? Majorca?

My guys had worked hard and I wanted to reward them with something special: “This is an exceptional car. It deserves an extraordinary location,” I declared.

“Where?”

“Los Angeles. The light is wonderful in Los Angeles.”

Neither my guys at the agency, nor the suits at Volkswagen, nor the photographer and crew had ever been to Los Angeles. Within minutes, they were deeply convinced that there was no better light and no better location for that car than Los Angeles. I was thanked for the artistically adroit inspiration.

Weeks later, three Scirocco GTIs (with the “GTI” removed from the rear to disguise the car’s true nature) were loaded on a 747, headed for LAX. My main Art Director didn’t want to go. In tune with my personnel selection process, he was a frail diabetic and was worried about the strain of the trip.

Art Director second-in-line gladly accepted the assignment. He joined a huge crew, consisting of the photographer, his assistants, models and anybody at the Volkswagen advertising department that was remotely connected with catalogs. All piled into another 747 and off they went.

I didn’t go on photo shoots anymore. I sent my people. I stayed behind in Düsseldorf and focused on more pressing matters. Such as hard partying.

A few days later, a loud, headache-inducing rrrrrriiiiing awoke me from a short sleep. I had a massive hangover. I decided to ignore the rrrrrrriiiiiiiing. Thankfully, it stopped. I settled back into my sorely needed sleep. The phone rang again. Angrier. Louder. Downright demandingly. I shook my head to clear the cobwebs, a move I immediately regretted. Serious headaches punished me for doing it. I clambered over Ms. Five Feet.

I picked up the phone.

“Hallo?” I said with a hoarse and annoyed voice.

“Bertel?” said a voice from far away, with the transatlantic echo of those times.

“Yeah, who’s that?”

It was Herr P., the trusted Master Sergeant of the Volkswagen Advertising Department, who had led the Wolfsburg contingent to Hollywood.

“Bertel, are you sitting down?”

“Sitting down? I’m in bed! With a splitting headache and a roaring hangover.”

“Well, you may need another drink. Your Art Director is dead.”

“He’s what?”

“Dead.”

“Herr P! It’s 9 in the morning. As I said, I have a splitting headache and a roaring hangover, and I am in no mood for distasteful jokes.”

“No joke. He’s dead.”

“You are shitting me, right?”

“I wish I were. He didn’t show up for the evening shoot. We called him, no answer. Hotel security opened his door. He was in bed. Dead.”

I slowly started to believe that he wasn’t pulling my chain.

“He’s dead? Seriously?”

“I don’t joke about these things.”

“What did he die of?”

“We have no idea. It just happened.”

Ever the copywriter, a banner headline formed in my tortured head:

“Death In Hollywood: Ad Man Overdoses In Hotel Suite.”

Someone had told me that the photographer was a friend of illicit substances, and that he shared his goodies sometimes.

I hit the shower and set off for the office. As the man in charge, I had to inform the parents who lived in Switzerland and whom I had never met. Then, as gently as possible, I had to tell my Art Director’s girlfriend, with whom he had shacked up with, that her “fiancé” would not come back due to the fact that he had died of so far unknown causes.

She cried a lot. She sobbed that because they were not married, she would not receive any benefits, that she didn’t have a job, and that she was penniless. Moved by her tears, and not wanting another headache, I told her that the finance dept of the agency could possibly “overlook” that he had died, they would continue paying three monthly salaries until they detect the error, which hopefully would give her time to re-arrange her life.

That done, I instructed Art Director One to forget his diabetes, to pack his stuff and get his skinny rear end on a plane to L.A.

The next day, Herr P. was on the phone again. The coroner’s report was in. Thankfully, there was no overdose. Unbeknownst to me, but not surprisingly, Art Director Two had suffered from epilepsy, had an attack while in bed, and had choked on his arm. After Herr P. had finished relaying the report, he said: “And where is my new Art Director? The photo shoot must go on!!!”

“Herr P! The Art Director is at the pharmacy to buy a two week supply of needles, insulin and whatever else diabetics need. Then he will be on a plane. Or would you rather have a second corpse on your hands?”

“Watch your mouth, Bertel. And get on with it.”

“Yessir.”

Fast forward eight years. I had moved to the U.S. and was asked to come back to manage the whole agency. On my return, I saw that the fiancé of deceased Art Director Two had shacked up with diabetic Art Director One. She must have had an attraction to skinny boys. Whatever.

One morning, the phone rang. It was her. She was in tears and distraught.

“Could you come to the apartment, please?”

“Why?”

“He’s dead.”

Not again!

Like Art Director Two, he had died in his sleep. Diabetic coma. The girlfriend’s situation was the same as 8 years ago. Not married. No benefits.

I gave her the same three-month solution. With one caveat:

“If you ever get close to one of my Art Directors again, there will be another death. And it will be you.”

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34 Comments on “Autobiography of BS ©: How Car Catalogs Killed Creatives...”


  • avatar
    DweezilSFV

    Bertel: I still have some of those VW catalogs in my collection. Were you responsible for the U.S. ones too?

    Great chapter in your series.From the physical description of your crew and the trip to Los Angeles, I thought the copywriters and art directiors would all wind up dating each other before it was over. Surprise.

    Another reason to keep coming back.

  • avatar
    commando1

    Bertel: You need to write a book. Quickly. I’m almost finished with P. J. O’Rourke’s, and Jean Shepherd is sorely missed.

  • avatar
    pista

    These stories should have their own section on the site.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    No female staff hired for their contribution to the decor? What kind of a place was this, anyway?

  • avatar

    Kendahl: This was the 70′s. Female staff was relegated to secretarial duty, to work in finance, and to do the occasional paste-up job in the art department. The were also accosted at the Friday night office orgy.

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    yes… the days before sexual discrimination and the glass ceiling

    what was the cost to ship three Golfs and an entire team from Germany to LA?

    must have had a huge budget

  • avatar

    Tony: Sciroccos, not Golfs. No idea how much it did cost. The budget for the catalogs WAS big. Travel and transportation was just a small item on the list.

  • avatar
    Jeff Puthuff

    Good stuff, B! Truly the Best of TTAC.

  • avatar

    Help! What is this ??????? Herr Farago! Fight the discombobulation of my Autobiography!!!! Help !!!!!

  • avatar
    beeb375

    Agreed, I really look forward to reading these now :)

  • avatar
    MBella

    These always make my day.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I love these stories, and yes they should be compiled into a book!

  • avatar
    grog

    These stories have an appalling side to them and I don’t mean the deaths of actual people. More like the deaths of actual souls working in this bidness.

    But man, the stories are hugely entertaining.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    The next time you are tempted to dismiss as commercialized trash the car brochure you are looking at, remember that the cost of producing it, both human and financial, may indeed be more than that of any current best-selling novel.

    Danke sehr, Bertel; I am becoming addicted to these behind-the-scenes stories of yours.

  • avatar
    dolo54

    excellent. write a book!

  • avatar
    Wheeljack

    Isn’t the 2nd picture of three Sciroccos (from the catalog) the second generation model? I got the impression from the story text we were talking about the first-gen Scirocco….

  • avatar
    allythom

    A great read Bertel. Keep ‘em coming.

    I used to, as a 10-13 year old, collect car catalogs in the UK. I vividly recall them: Yellow for Polo, Orange for Golf and was it Red for the Scirocco ? I always spent ages dwelling the Golf GTI page.

  • avatar

    Wheeljack. You are right. My archives didn’t survive the many moves I made in my life. Maybe allythom still has one in the attic. The story was about Scirocco I.

  • avatar
    allythom

    Sadly I have none left from back then, I used to have loads, but I lost interest and eventually my mum threw them out. Kind of sad in retrospect.

  • avatar

    Another great entry, Bertel!

    That autobiography definitionaviation thing looks like a scraper splog. Start 4 all appears to be a blogger clone.

    The ‘Engrish’ translation errors suggest non-US, probably slavic, source.

    +You’re a good writer and all BS, but if you came up with something as pure gold awesome as:
    “If you farm the cows come poorhouse switch on attention to quiet to a given of my Art Directors again, there devise be another liquidation.”,
    I’d call you a f^&king comedic Genius! :P

  • avatar
    jmo

    “sicklish”

    Haha – that’s kinda funny.

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    OK, perhaps this indicates where my mind is, but I initially read way too much into the phrase “to familiarize oneself with the models.” Then I went back and read the post again, and there wasn’t any reference to THOSE type of models being along for the shoot. Bummer. Otherwise I was going to look into changing careers. (And getting a time machine I suppose)

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    Re: autobiographydefinitionaviation

    I had fun reading that site. It looks like somebody created a personal site, gathered autobiographical excerpts from the net, and then had fun running it through babelfish to other languages and back into English. I personally wouldn’t worry about it, but then, I’m not the author of one of those babeled excerpts. I have no idea what Herr Farago can do about it.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Gen I Scirocco was brilliant. Gen 2 fugly. Corrado (?) was kind of cool.

    Great story.

  • avatar
    niky

    Hahaha… wonderful entry, Bertel! Not having worked with an advertising company, but having been on quite a few shoots with professional car photographers, I understand what you mean about the light…

    It is often found in scenic locations close to a beach, a good bar, a weekend resort…

    When this is compiled into a book, it is bound to be a best-seller… you should file a copyright on the title: “Autobiography of BS” before someone more serious tries to steal it!

  • avatar

    Niky: I know enough about copyright. At least in the Western world, it is protected by the first use doctrine, no registration needed.

    Autobiography of BS © 2009 hereby asserted

  • avatar
    vento97

    I had a 75 Scirocco. Once I worked out all of the bugs (which included replacing the piece-of-junk zenith carburetor for a two-barrel Weber downdraft and the points for an electronic ignition), it was a blast to drive – especially since it weighed around 1900 lbs! As a matter of fact, I put 250,000 miles on the car until it was hit by a tractor trailer who decided to occupy my lane – while I was in it!

    Man, I miss that car! It got mileage consistently in the mid 30 mpg range (overall) and 40 mpg on the highway…

  • avatar

    Thanks for that link, BS. The double-translation is even more entertaining than your original!

    “Cars were whack at sunrise and at sunset.”

    Here’s the direct link:

    http://autobiographydefinitionaviation.start4all.com/2009/06/21/autobiography-of-bs-how-car-catalogs-killed-creatives-the-truth-about-cars/

  • avatar
    dolorean23

    Bertel, I was the proud owner of the ’88 Scriocco GT, candy apple red with a huge whaletail while stationed in Friedberg, GE, for three years. I bought it used when the DM was still around for about $1500 with 62000K on the odo. I drove the ever-lovin’ piss out of that car, taking her back to the technik I bought her from for service.

    One question though. It always amazed me that a car with a 57 Kwz 1.8L carbo four banger could run at 160 kph for hours at 5800 rpm (due to its manual 4 spd) and still achieve approx. 30 mpg. You think it had something to do with the light?

  • avatar
    JMII

    I worked for a cruise line doing advertising (and thus several photo shoots) the word “boondoggle” was the phrase most associated with such trips. As indicated here very little “work” was done despite huge sums of money being spent. Of course when your directions indicate: more photos of wine requested from HQ, well… that pretty much covers it I think.

  • avatar
    Scorched Earth

    Agreed, you need to write a book Bertel! Your stories aren’t self-serving or overdramatic, they’re just awesome!

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    I miss those era VWs. Wish I could buy one without the 20 years of age and neglect. I miss the lightweight 80s VWs. Am driving a late 90s VW and the refinement is nicer but the weight is obvious.

    Love these stories!!! Keep them coming, please.

  • avatar
    gerd hiepler

    Bertel

    Ein Buch.
    Ja, ein Buch.
    Ja ja, ein Buch, könnt es auch sein.

    Wenn 100 es wollen.
    Und jeder 100 Öro einlegt, sollte es klappen.
    Mit einem Gruss an “Die” da

    Gerd

  • avatar
    Ronman

    Great Stuff Bertel… can’t wait for the next one…


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